Even I've been forced to admit that PC hardware has seemed pretty dull lately. While there's been no shortage of new launches, there's been no must buy upgrade. That might have changed today with the launch of AMD's Radeon HD7850 and HD7870 (opens in new tab) graphics cards.
Based on 'Pitcairn' revisions of the Southern Islands processor design, the HD7800s are slightly cut down versions of the hugely powerful but hugely expensive 7900s, with the same Graphics Core Next (opens in new tab) (GCN) tech at their heart. They're fast, futureproof and with prices for both cards around the £200/$300 mark, they're also relatively affordable.
The Radeon HD7870 is the more potent of the two, available for preorder at eBuyer for less than £209 (opens in new tab) . It has 1280 individual shader cores arranged into 20 of AMD's Compute Unit (CU), along with 80 texture units and 32 ROPS. The shader cores run at a flat 1GHz, paired with 2GB of GDDR5 memory running at the equivalent of 4.8GHz.
To compare that with the top end HD7970, the flagship card has 32 CUs for 2048 shaders, 128 texture units and the same 32 ROPS. The HD7970's clock speed is marginally lower at stock settings, running at 925Hz.
The new HD7850, meanwhile, is the one that's pitched to sell, currently available to order at £190. That is essentially a HD7870 with four CUs switched off to leave 1024 shaders, 64 texture units and 32 ROPS.
That's the basic details, but you could read all that at Wikipedia (opens in new tab) . What you want to know is performance. We've not had a card in to review yet, but early reviews (opens in new tab) mark the HD7870 as at least matching, if not beating, the more expensive GeForce 570 and Radeon HD6970. They're the 'play anything at any settings comfortably' cards which are just outside of what I'd consider affordable at the moment. You have to be pretty committed to spend £300 on a GPU these days.
The HD7950, meanwhile, seems to have a clear edge over the GeForce 560Ti in most games but not all. As Anandtech (opens in new tab) points out, the 560Ti can be had for a bargain if you shop around (which is why it's still my choice for the Rig). While the new Radeons look like a better bet for the future – they have more RAM, the drivers can only mature and they have AMD's brilliant power saving tricks (opens in new tab) on board – in terms of raw performance it's not a definitive win.
Then again, the prices for the new AMD cards are still only provisional and may yet fall. And there's NVIDIA's Kepler chips to look forward to as well, of course. They could finally spark off a real and more meaningful price war than we've seen for a couple of years.